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Dear Mr President – make corruption boring again

Blog Post05/30/2019
image showing dear Mr President – make corruption boring again

There’s no point sugar-coating it. Now that the inauguration is over and President Ramaphosa has taken office and the cabinet announcements have been made, he faces what may be the toughest job in South Africa. There was a general feeling of hope at Loftus as he took his oath of office, but now it’s time to get to work and make good on the promises to stamp out corruption and bring change to the country.

I’m not going to add to the weight of those expectations with my own list of what I want to see from the presidency. When he first gave his famous Thuma Mina speech, I wrote an article on what the nation’s biggest challenges are – my thoughts haven’t really changed. The challenge isn’t our vision but in how we execute it.

Instead, I’d like to offer my one wish for the presidency. I hope that as President Ramaphosa and the new Cabinet gets into the swing of things, the word ‘corruption’ becomes an afterthought. Not because the government’s commitment has wavered, but because accountability, effectiveness and efficiency must be an intrinsic part of every government department, public enterprise and citizen service.

We know how prevalent corruption is in South African society. According to PwC, the country suffers the highest rate of economic crime in the world, costing businesses billions of dollars. But more than being damaging, it’s boring. Talking about it. Having to hear about it. Standing in long queues with nothing to do because of it. Worst of all, it stops you getting to work on more important stuff like entrepreneurship and innovation. Just get rid of it and let’s get on with the more interesting business of growing the country into something great.

Easier said than done - we know what a slow, frustrating process hacking away the strangling vines of corruption can be. So what if we ditch the dull, inefficient tools we’ve been using until now and find something that kills the bad seeds before they have the chance to take root in our institutions?

We should’ve seen it coming

Ever read a newspaper article exposing some dodgy business deal or crooked individual and wondered how anyone could have missed the signs? Why is a junior clerk driving a brand new Mercedes? How can the councillor in a tiny rural municipality afford a beachfront house in Camps Bay? And how exactly does flying your entire extended family to Disney World count as a business expense?

Corruption and fraud comes with some pretty obvious red flags. According to a Certified Fraud Examiners study, in 76% of the fraud cases, the culprits were either living beyond their means and/or experiencing financial difficulty.

So why aren’t we catching all these blatant frauds the moment they show up in their luxury cars? Well, you try spotting these big spenders with small wallets in a country of 57 million people. It’s like looking for a needle in a field full of haystacks - even if the needle is gold-plated and studded with diamonds, it’s still going to be a near impossible task.

This is where I believe the true power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and all its variants of technology and artificial intelligence can really play a role. If we have something that can sift through the haystacks for us, all we have to do is show them what a needle looks like and point them in the right direction.

How others are finding the frauds

We’re seeing more examples every year of governments and organisations using technology to weed out fraud, graft, and inefficiency. In Brazil, for example, the Development Bank uses data visualisation and geo-referencing to track progress on projects in the Amazon. In the UK, the tax administration uses social network data analysis to pre-emptively identify people most at risk of committing tax fraud.

Many cities, like Buenos Aires are making critical data on local finances open to the public. Mexico City has their own state-of-the-art fiscal transparency portal, which allows citizens to scrutinise and flag suspicious practices and patterns.

The World Bank has its own ‘integrity’ app that allows citizens to report fraud and corruption concerns around bank-financed projects. In Nigeria and Ghana, apps like BudgIT and Tracka are empowering citizens to hold authorities accountable by educating them and giving them a platform to track development projects in their communities.

The success of these projects proves the importance of making data transparent and open. Technology is invaluable in achieving that.

The tech that can power Thuma Mina

As tech emanating from the 4IR becomes more sophisticated, we’re seeing the emergence of even smarter, more autonomous ways to detect anomalies. It is my hope that organizations across South Africa will start to use this tech, not for techs' sake, but to solve the problems that plague us and enable those opportunities that present themselves to us everyday.

At TransUnion, where I have the privilege of leading our businesses across Africa, we have been laser-focused on solving these problems that matter. Some time ago I charged my team with trying to connect the data dots and help both our private sector and public sector organizations hone in on the hotspots of corruption and fraud. Our TransUnion Lifestyle Assessment solution has already started to assist some of our clients identify and sharpen the investigating processes that start to uncover those that contribute to our status-quo.

Tech is not as scary as it seems – it really can be a force for good. As we start to bring to reality the likes of 5G and a connected digital society, how do we help citizens feel safer in this new, scary digital world. Many organizations are trying to connect these dots of making those in the physical world feel safer in the digital world. Recently we launched iovation, one of the world’s largest real time databases of device information in South Africa – this will add to existing methods of fraud identification by combining real-time information about devices connected to internet to real time transactions. We hope this will give businesses and law enforcement a better chance to identify and stop fraud before it happens.

President Ramaphosa may be the one in the pressure seat, but I don’t believe the responsibility to fight corruption rests with government alone. As we move into this new chapter, it’s integral that we make the same promise as the president - to root out corruption in our own backyards.

The tools are there – it’s time to stand firm in our resolve and use them. It’s time to look inside our own organisations and live up to the spirit of Thuma Mina.

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